Shakira, the Latin pop superstar still somewhat new to U.S. audiences, has millions of admirers, including Nobel- winning author Gabriel Garcia Marquez. She counts the pope among her well- wishers.
This afternoon at MTV's Times Square studio, though, she collects compliments from a lesser divinity -- MTV personality and "TRL" host Carson Daly, who introduces the video for her new single in halting espan~ol. And she reciprocates:
"Your Spanish sounds so cute," she coos. "It's the cutest Spanish I ever heard."
During the commercial break, Shakira, dazzling in a black pantsuit with shiny silver pinstripes, works the studio audience. Self-possessed and cheerful, she moves through the crowd, bestowing hugs and handshakes. One young fan merits extra hugs: Ricardo Mimbela, 15, is wearing a yellow cardboard box just like the yellow washing machine that appears on the back cover of Shakira's latest album, "Laundry Service." Mimbela spent several afternoons creating this tribute. As per the album art, several objects can be seen through his machine's round door: an English dictionary, a red heart-shaped box of chocolates, and a pink padded brassiere, borrowed from his mother.
Once the cameras start rolling again, Daly introduces the boy to Shakira, and she plants a kiss on his flushed cheek.
When the show is over, Mimbela stands outside the studio, still in his washing machine box and shaking his head in disbelief. His family moved here from Peru three years ago, so, unlike most of the MTV kids, Mimbela has adored Shakira for a long time.
"Before 'Laundry Service' came out, nobody here in the United States knew about Shakira," he says. "People would ask, 'Who's your favorite artist?' And I told them Shakira, and they would ask, 'Who's she?' Now they ask me and I say Shakira and they say, 'Yeah, she's mine, too.' "
Heavyweights in Her Corner Shakira, 25, has been making records in her native Colombia since she was 13, and in the past seven years, she has become one of the most successful female artists in Latin American music. Now she's crossing over in a very big way.
"Laundry Service," her sixth album and her first primarily in English, was released here last fall. Since then, it has reached double-platinum sales in the United States, bringing its worldwide total to well over 3 million. Sales have been buoyed by the success of the first single, "Whenever, Wherever" and its Spanish-language version, "Suerte," which has reached No. 1 on singles charts in much of Europe, in Australia and New Zealand, and also in Lebanon and Turkey. Here, "Laundry Service" debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 album chart and has remained in the Top 20 ever since.
"We've really only put the first single out," notes Sony Music Entertainment Chairman and Chief Executive Tommy Mottola. "We're just starting on the second single. We have another year or so ahead of us for more singles, more videos, touring, and lots of promotion." A U.S. tour is planned for the fall; no Washington date has been set yet.
MTV loves the videogenic young star and has aired both the English and Spanish versions of "Whenever, Wherever": the first time, according to a spokesman for the channel, that U.S. MTV has aired a Spanish-language video. It also recently devoted a half-hour "Making the Video" program to the album's second single, the power ballad "Underneath Your Clothes."
Some of the music industry's heftiest heavyweights have invested in Shakira's North American conquest. There's Mottola, perhaps best known outside the industry as the record exec who Svengali-ed (and married) Mariah Carey. Shakira's current manager, Freddy DeMann, helped guide the ascent of Michael Jackson and Madonna. And Shakira's collaborators on the album include Latin crossover pioneer Gloria Estefan and her husband, producer Emilio Estefan Jr.
All this for a young woman who at first glance appears merely a South American version of blond belly barers Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. But there's more to Shakira. She might have gotten an early start, but she's no teeny-bopper anymore, and "Laundry Service" is hardly vacuous teen pop -- it's a fusion of various rock styles as well as Latin genres with a few Middle Eastern flourishes thrown in. Shakira, who knows how to play guitar, harmonica and various rhythm instruments, either wrote or co-wrote all of the tracks, and as the liner notes pointedly remind us, "The Entire Album Produced by Shakira."
Still, American newspapers and magazines continue to compare her to Those Two, and Shakira insists she doesn't really mind.
"They're beautiful women, talented, and they have a space and a function in the entertainment world," she says, speaking carefully in heavily accented English. "I try not to compare my work or me personally with other people around, because I think very independently. I've been trying to make my music in a very independent way, independently from any other movement around."
Because Shakira was a kiddie-pop performer who has come into her own as an adult, and also because of her warbling vocal style and confessional songwriting, music critics often liken her to Alanis Morissette, who was a young dance-pop star in Canada before launching a career as a singer-songwriter. (The link is underscored by the appearance of Glen Ballard, the writer-producer behind Morissette's "Jagged Little Pill," on one "Laundry Service" track.)
"I'm a little bit confused. Sometimes they call me the Latin Alanis Morissette and sometimes they call me the Latin Britney Spears. It makes me laugh," says Shakira.
"I understand that I'm considered a new artist in certain territories," she adds. "It's very typical and very logical that when there's somebody new in the neighborhood, people try to associate that person with somebody who's already known and established. But I know that I'll earn my own space once they start knowing a little bit more what I'm about."
A Plan for Stardom
Shakira is not the first Spanish-singing artist to switch to English in order to break onto U.S. radio. But as Billboard magazine Latin Bureau Chief Leila Cobo pointed out last fall, Shakira should be considered the first true crossover.
" 'Laundry Service' is arguably the first major crossover into the English market by a [primarily] Spanish-speaking artist," Cobo wrote. "After all, Marc Anthony, Jennifer Lopez, Gloria Estefan and even Enrique Iglesias were either born or raised here, and Ricky Martin was fluent in English for years before his English-language album debut."
When she first interviewed Shakira for a Los Angeles newspaper several years ago, they spoke in Spanish, says Cobo, who has praised Shakira for breaking what she refers to as the "formulaic mold" of Latin pop.
Now, more than four months after "Laundry Service's" release, Cobo says she is and isn't surprised by the album's U.S. success. "Shakira was totally a foreign artist. She is singing in a language she learned very recently. I wasn't sure if she would connect with your mainstream U.S. audience," she says. "But I expected it to do really well, because there was such a huge marketing push behind it, and the album had a very big budget, the video had a very big budget. It was a big priority for the label."
At least some of Shakira's crossover success, says Sony's Mottola, has had to do with timing. "I had been talking to her for a long time about when the time was right, because she was always desirous of doing it. But we felt we should really wait until there was such an established presence with her as an artist in the Latin world, that the presence would be so strong, that she could cross over," he explains.
This meant making sure another multiplatinum album, "Donde Estan los Ladrones?" (Where Are the Thieves?), solidified her stardom in Latin America. It meant grooming her for a much-talked-about appearance at the 2000 Latin Grammys, where, dressed in a red leather ensemble, she performed a sultry belly dance.
DeMann was in semi-retirement when he happened to see Shakira during an earlier television appearance. "I went crazy over her," he says. "I said to my wife, 'That girl is gonna be a star. Who is that girl?' "
DeMann took over her management from Emilio Estefan Jr. in early 2000, and soon afterward negotiated a multimillion-dollar global promotional deal with Pepsi. He has no doubt that Shakira will reach the same stratosphere as his former clients. "She has 'it.' It's hard to describe -- it's almost a subconscious feeling. It touches you emotionally, cerebrally, and it just gets you," he says. "I just know, and I got a pretty good track record of knowing.
"When I met her, I was blown away by how gorgeous she was in person. She's a brilliant songwriter. She has an unbelievable voice; her vocal instrument is phenomenal and unique. She dances better than anyone out there, and she writes her own songs, sings her own songs, and she actually plays her own instruments. And she produces her own music. She's the whole package."
Shakira's potential, asserts Mottola, is unlimited: "She clearly is and will be a gigantic global superstar."
'Of Her Own Invention'
Sitting in a subterranean restaurant in a SoHo hotel, Shakira, whose full name is Shakira Mebarak Ripoll, recounts her eventful life. She grew up in the coastal town of Barranquilla, where her father, who is of Lebanese descent, and her Colombian mother owned a jewelry business. Shakira, whose first name is Arabic for "full of grace," discovered her penchant for performing at age 4, when she belly-danced for her classmates. "I fell in love with the sensation of being on the stage," she says. "From that moment on, I was called to be a performer."
She wrote her first song at age 8 and was signed to Sony Discos, Sony's Latin division, when she was 13. After several not particularly successful albums and a stint on a television soap opera, Shakira, then 17, begged Sony to allow her to write and record her next album on her own. The result was "Pies Descalzos" (Bare Feet), which was recorded with a budget of $30,000, sold 3.5 million copies worldwide, and proved to be a turning point in several ways. "That's when I discovered how important it is to be in control of my own material," she says.
Years later, when Sony advised her to have Gloria Estefan translate the lyrics of "Donde Estan los Ladrones?" for her U.S. debut, Shakira, a self-described "control freak," eventually aborted the project after she concluded that she could write her own English. She learned conversational English and then English literature, studying Walt Whitman and Leonard Cohen. "The purpose was understanding the nature of English in literature because it's very different than the conversational English," she explains.
Four of the 13 tracks on "Laundry Service" are in Spanish; the rest are in English, and those include one track from the Estefan project, "Eyes Like Yours" (Ojos Asi). Shakira likens learning to write in English to battling "a scary monster. It looked big and scary in front of my eyes, almost with five eyes and six hands, something like that. Like a monster that I had to fight, but I didn't know where to start. Should I cut the hand first, or pinch his third eye first? It was like something that seemed almost impossible to defeat."
The translation from Spanish to English is part of what makes her lyrics so unusual, but occasionally the feel of English evades her. "Whenever, Wherever" contains the curious couplet, "Lucky that my breasts are small and humble / So you don't confuse them with mountains." But mostly, her style is poetic: "Underneath Your Clothes" opens with the line, "You're a song / Written by the hands of God."
The hit "Whenever, Wherever" was inspired by her fiance, Antonio de la Rua, son of the former Argentine president Fernando de la Rua, who resigned in December.
"It's a love song that talks about someone who'd do anything, including even to climb mountains, only just to count the freckles on his body," she says. "It's somebody who's in love with a person who lives far away. And that we are literally separated by the mountains of South America, the Andes." (For readers who keep track of such things: Shakira's diamond engagement ring is chunky but tasteful. No wedding date has been set.)
"Underneath Your Clothes" is another love song -- "it's where I show my devotion for the Beatles' music," she says. "Objection (Tango)" is an anti-infidelity rant that's the album's most wide-ranging blend of styles. Shakira describes it as "a combination of punk rock sounds and electric guitars with some Brazilian elements and Argentinean tango."
Her disorderly bleached-blond hair is highlighted by an artfully placed streak of black that accents her dark roots. Shakira's hair color -- blond for the past few years -- has been the subject of much speculation, and some disgruntled longtime fans have accused her of trying to downplay her Latin identity.
"Maybe people think I dyed my hair blond to meet a certain requirement of the Anglo market, but I didn't," she insists. "The first time I dyed it, I dyed it red. I just like to go to extremes . . . There was no other purpose in my change of look other than the vanity thing." (A critic for the Village Voice had a similar explanation, suggesting that her " 'unruly' blonde tresses are meant to . . . disguise the fact that she's a short woman with a round face.")
Several years ago, Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote a profile of Shakira (for Hombres magazine), and not surprisingly, he raved about the young star: "No one can sing and dance like her, at whatever age, with such an innocent sensuality, one that seems to be of her own invention," he wrote.
"I was surprised to know that somebody like him, a Nobel of literature, was interested in my very little interesting life," says Shakira. "We got along very well. I think there was some kind of link intellectually. He's also from the coast of my country, so we had many things in common. He's somebody that means a lot to my people, and to a certain extent, I think I do too.
"So it was like an encounter of two people who are trying to put the name of my country in a good visible place."
Four years ago, Shakira was received by the pope at the Vatican. He blessed her; she reportedly asked him to intervene in Colombia's protracted civil war.
A Debt to Gloria Her role models aren't musicians, because, she explains, "my favorite singers are not the best role models. Janis Joplin, Billie Holiday -- they didn't have the best endings for their lives, you know. They didn't live their lives in the most healthy way."
But then there's Gloria Estefan, who initially helped Shakira with English lyrics but also facilitated her crossover in another, more meaningful way.
"She opened a big heavy door that was closed for many years," says Shakira. "It was almost 20 years ago, and I think Latins in America occupied a different position in society. She started making music in English with salsa rhythmic patterns and congas and bongos. . . . She did what I could say is the impossible."
Any artist attempting to enlist new and different fans risks alienating his core audience, but Shakira is confident that by this point, there's little chance of that. "I'm so sure of what I represent for my people and of what I am," she says. "I know that my roots are very well-planted in Latin America. And I feel proud of being Colombian and Latin, and I say it out loud to the rest of the world every time I can."
She adds: "The reaction that my people have had with this album is so amazing. This album, which is mostly in English, is exploding more than past records in my career that were all in Spanish."
So with the right promotion, maybe she will be the Madonna for the new millennium, an international superstar who somehow manages to outshine all the rest.
"Madonna? Wow. I don't think so. To be as big as Madonna, it takes too much. It takes a lifetime. It takes too much ambition," she says. "I don't know if I want to get there, really.
"I don't think I want to be jumping on the stage when I'm 40. Nothing wrong with that -- on the contrary, that's great. That's what keeps her young and alive and all that. But by then, I might be so tired that I just want to get a farm and plant onions and tomatoes."